Next week I’ll be speaking at Lean Agile Scotland and I’m very excited about the opportunity. I’ve followed the conference online the past few years, but have never been able to attend in person. Regular speakers include David Snowden, Jim Benson, Alicia Juarrero, and others who have explored software development from the perspective of human cognition and complexity. For a great example of this approach and the insights it can offer, check out Alicia’s keynote from last year about “safe-to-fail” and uncertainty.
The conference will be very stimulating and push boundaries. I’m going to do my part to broaden the conversation by focusing on historical examples of innovation in complex realms. We tend to think of the ideas behind Agile and Lean as new; we deliberately contrast them with “traditional” management approaches to set them apart. This is unfortunate because it cuts us off from a rich set of historical evidence about how organizations learn, improve, and innovate. Many of the underpinnings of Lean and Agile—like cross-functional teaming, rapid feedback, and collaborative learning—are not new. They’ve been used successfully for a very long time.
I presented a specific example earlier this week at the Agile Ashburn meetup. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy altered its approach to battleship design. It leveraged cross-functional collaboration and feedback to produce design concepts much more rapidly. This fostered a greater willingness to experiment, more effective exploitation of new technologies, and innovative ships that were ahead of their time.
At Lean Agile Scotland, I’ll be discussing another success story from the U.S. Navy’s history. Between the world wars, the U.S. Navy created a sophisticated learning system that successfully harnessed new technologies and led to repeated innovations. It’s an excellent case study for how organizations can deliberately foster environments that embrace experimentation and evidence-based learning. (It’s also the subject of a book I’m currently working on; watch this space for updates.)
In my talk, I’ll discuss how the U.S. Navy’s learning environment was triggered by changes in the late nineteenth century, including a redefinition of what it meant to be a naval officer. I see parallels between that redefinition and our changing view of work today, as we shift from emphasizing specialized, expert knowledge to embracing the need for collaborative, team-based experimentation. There are strong similarities between that shift and changes triggered within the U.S. Navy a century ago.
I’ll continue by examining how the U.S. Navy created a learning environment by balancing feedback loops between high-level planning cycles and low-level experimentation. This is particularly exciting to me because it is exactly what good Agile programs do today. They incorporate feedback at multiple levels to capitalize on team-based exploration and iterative planning; the result is the delivery of sophisticated solutions. The U.S. Navy did much the same thing on a larger scale, and there are core lessons that are relevant to today’s organizations.
I think this topic will mix well with the other sessions and enhance attendees’ understanding of the history of organizational learning. It will also fit well with the diverse nature of the conference; some of the topics range from “Humans are Neither Ants nor Data Processors” to “Promoting Healthy Uncertainty on Software Projects” and “The Temporal Materiality of the Intangible.” I’m particularly curious about that last one. After I return from the conference, I’ll post again about what I’ve learned and the lessons I’m bringing back to Excella!